Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

July 23, 2023

After decades-long decline, advocates hope hydroelectric power could see rebirth as clean energy solution

HBJ PHOTO | BILL MORGAN Duncan Broatch, president of Summit Hydropower Inc., at his facility in Dayville.

Hydroelectric power, produced through carbon-free and efficient technology developed in the late-1800s to provide mechanical energy for mills, could see a rebirth, advocates hope.

As Connecticut inches closer to its 2040 deadline to procure all of its energy from zero-carbon sources, the state needs to diversify production, and some experts say that hydropower must become an increasingly important part of the energy mix if the Nutmeg State is going to meet its clean energy goals.

Lee Hoffman

“You’re going to need a mix of zero-carbon resources in order to get to that goal,” said Lee Hoffman, chair of law firm Pullman & Comley, and former co-chair of the firm’s real estate, energy, environmental and land use department. “You’re going to need nuclear, you’re going to need wind, you’re going to need solar and yes, you’re going to need hydroelectric.”

However, for that to happen, hydro advocates say producers must be compensated more in order to sustain their businesses, and they complain that the state has largely ignored hydropower as a reliable clean energy source.

Duncan Broatch, a hydropower operator and chairperson of the Connecticut Small Power Producers Association, recently submitted a report to the state legislature that said 11 hydroelectric dams have recently shut down, causing the state to lose 8 megawatts of generation capacity.

An additional nine facilities are at risk of being decommissioned soon, a potential loss of another 10 MW.

Meanwhile, he estimates that 47 undeveloped dams in Connecticut could be retooled as hydropower generators, if the economic situation makes the projects viable. That would create 27 MW of electricity — enough to power up to 24,300 homes annually.

Broatch said many hydroelectric dams are struggling because operators can’t afford to maintain their Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses, which require significant plant upgrades roughly once every 40 years.

Non-renewables reliance

Hydroelectric technology has existed for centuries. Hydroelectric dams convert the energy of flowing water into kinetic energy using hydraulic turbines. A generator converts the mechanical energy into electricity.

Hydroelectricity’s share of total U.S. electricity generation decreased from the 1950s through 2020, mainly because of increases from other sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In 2022, hydroelectricity accounted for about 6.2% of total U.S. electricity generation. About 7% of Connecticut’s electricity comes from hydropower, according to ISO-New England, which oversees the region’s electrical grid.

Fossil fuel-burning power plants, which use heat to generate steam that drives turbines to produce electricity, generate the majority of electricity in the United States, as well as in Connecticut. They became popular because they’re reliable and relatively inexpensive to build, according to the World Nuclear Association.

But they produce large amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. Also, the earth’s fossil fuels reserve is being depleted.

Connecticut is heavily reliant on non-renewable energy sources. In 2022, most of the state’s electricity (52%) was derived from natural gas, second to nuclear (26%), based on data from ISO-New England.

In an effort to reverse that trend, in 2019, Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order setting the state’s goal to have a zero-carbon electric grid by 2040. Last year, it was codified into law.

Hoffman said five of six New England states have decarbonization goals between now and 2050.

“If those five states achieve their zero-carbon goals by 2050, we will need to roughly double our electric production in New England, and we will need to do so while replacing our current fossil fuel assets,” Hoffman said. “So, right now, the biggest producer of electricity in New England is natural gas. We will have to replace a significant number of natural gas-fired power plants as well as other fossil fuel plants, while at the same time doubling the overall production, and that’s a daunting task.”

The state has worked to provide incentives for wind and solar energy production, with many producers receiving about 20 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity — more than six times as much as what small hydroelectric facilities receive, according to Broatch.

That puts hydropower producers at a major disadvantage. Broatch’s business, Summit Hydropower, operates a 100 KW hydroelectric facility in Dayville at a loss, he said.

The plant brings in gross revenue of about $11,000 a year and generates enough electricity to power about 80 homes, he said.

“How am I supposed to run and operate and maintain this thing for only $11,000?” Broatch said. “Your liability insurance policy alone costs $5,000. So, this is a real problem.”

The Dayville Pond Hydro Power facility, operated by Summit Hydropower Inc., produces 100 KW of electricity, enough to power about 80 homes.

Other New England states have programs that offer equitable energy rates for the purchase of hydropower. Those rates often match the retail rate charged by utilities, Broatch explained.

Because Connecticut doesn’t offer such a program, hydroelectric producers receive ISO-New England’s wholesale rate, which averages about 3 cents per kWh.

The low rates, on top of costly requirements, have created an economic crisis for the industry, Broatch said. He has been imploring the legislature to establish purchase rates in the range of 12 to 24 cents per kWh.

But two bills that would have mandated those higher rates died in committee during the recent legislative session.

Studying the issue

The state legislature this year did pass a bill signed by Lamont that will establish a task force to study and review the benefits of the state’s hydropower assets.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection offered support for the bill, saying “hydropower resources provide valuable support to the state’s energy needs and goals.”

Broatch opposed the legislation, urging the legislature to instead take action by setting higher rates for hydroelectricity.

Rep. Tim Ackert

He has support from state Rep. Tim Ackert (R-Coventry), a member of the Energy and Technology Committee, who proposed a bill during the 2023 legislative session that would have required electricity distribution companies to pay a monthly tariff for every kilowatt-hour of electricity received from hydropower facilities.

The tariffs would be paid directly to the operators of those facilities. However, the bill died in committee.

Ackert said local hydropower production will help the state lower its emissions, noting that hydroelectric generators are consistent and predictable compared to other energy sources, like solar, which depends on sunlight, and wind.

Also, Ackert said hydropower is environmentally friendly because it removes debris from the water. Hydroelectric dams typically employ fish passages that protect populations of migrating fish.

FirstLight Power Resources owns one of the state’s largest hydroelectric facilities, located along the Housatonic River in New Milford, with a 29 MW capacity – enough electricity to power about 18,850 homes.

It pumps water into Candlewood Lake, which was created specifically to store water that is used to produce electricity. It releases the stored water to generate electricity during peak hours.

But most of the hydropower producers in Connecticut are small operators like Broatch. Without legislative action, Broatch said he fears more will shut down.

“I really should be decommissioned, but I just can’t,” Broatch said. “I don’t have the heart to do that. So, I’m not doing that right now. I have confidence in our legislative system, and I’m going to keep working with them on getting equitable rates from hydro.”

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF